John Singer Sargent Biography
John Singer Sargent (/ˈsɑːrdʒənt/; January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.
His parents were American, but he was trained in Paris prior to moving to London. Sargent enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter, although not without controversy and some critical reservation; an early submission to the Paris Salon, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter, but it resulted in scandal instead. From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality.
His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. He lived most of his life in Europe. Art historians generally ignored the society artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.
Before Sargent’s birth, his father, FitzWilliam (b. 1820 Gloucester, Massachusetts), was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia 1844–1854. After John’s older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary (née Singer), suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Although based in Paris, Sargent’s parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant, they stopped in Florence, Tuscany, because of a cholera epidemic. Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife’s entreaties to remain abroad. They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other Americans except for friends in the art world. Four more children were born abroad, of whom only two lived past childhood.
Although his father was a patient teacher of basic subjects, young Sargent was a rambunctious child, more interested in outdoor activities than his studies. As his father wrote home, “He is quite a close observer of animated nature.” His mother was convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent’s mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes. FitzWilliam had hoped that his son’s interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.
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Why John Singer Sargent?
Realism is not a technique so much as a philosophy. In some ways, Sargent can be considered a generalist, for he mastered and fused various different styles: classical portraits, impressionism, landscapes, watercolors and murals. Sargent believed that styles were techniques to be used rather than an end representation in themselves, and said that knowledge of a particular style: “does not make a man an Artist any more than the knowledge of perspective does – it is merely a refining of one’s means towards representing things and one step further away from the hieroglyph”.
Sargent was renowned for his portraits of the wealthy and famous. Although he worked within the established style of classical portraiture he used unusual compositions, interesting color palettes, and rarely repeated the same arrangement twice. Sargents’ lack of use of under painting and under drawing allowed for more spontaneous, less controlled brush strokes which gave the effect of capturing the sitter in a candid moment. At the same time, he was able to manipulate props to convey the social status of his subjects, particularly in his use of texture to detail fine fabrics.
Sargent used a more brilliant palette for watercolors than he did for his portraits, reserving watercolors for landscapes and non-notable people, such as his friends and the natives he came across during his travels. The Impressionist philosophy of the time was that the effects of sunlight could be best captured outdoors, a philosophy that Sargent followed.
Sargent changed the loose, spontaneous style that he was known for in favor of clearly outlined designs that could be seen from afar. For his murals, he relied on his extensive knowledge of art history as well as equally extensive travel research, which took him across two continents.
This seriousness distinguished Sargent from many other historical muralists of the period. However, he made mural painting his own in the same way that he made classical portraiture his own. Sargent used accurate symbols but sometimes changed their meaning, combined unrelated historical styles and even inserted pop-culture references into the mural.
While striving for historical accuracy with a twist, he also wanted richness of detail which would impress, educate, and entertain visitors as they walked through the public library’s hallways over and over again. Many critics thought that what Sargent accomplished with his mural paintings had not been seen since the Renaissance.